Trip Report – Scotland 2022

I’ve been thinking a lot of the concept of “Clock Time,” a term coined by Joe Zadeh in his excellent essay “The Tyranny of Time.” (It’s great, read it.) It was partly invented by John Flamsteed’s founding of the Greenwich Observatory, which birthed “Mean Time,” a concept that was eventually spread worldwide by the British Empire and its citizens. Everywhere the British went, they brought clocks, centering their colonies around them, and adhering schedules to the rotations of those pernicious little hands. So, it’s fitting I found myself musing over Clock Time as we spent much of this past April in Scotland, the northernmost country in Great Britain—the birthplace of Clock Time.

If you’ve been reading my blog and trip reports for a while, you’ll know this was a second visit for us. Our first was in 2017. The trip was initially supposed to happen last year as a gift from Kari-Lise to celebrate my 40th birthday. But COVID, which doesn’t adhere to Clock Time, had other plans, and the trip was delayed several times. As we were to learn, this was for the best. So, when the time finally came, on the heels of yet another COVID spike in the Pacific Northwest, we packed our bags, donned our masks, climbed into and out of several airplanes, and made the trip. I’m thrilled we did. It was long overdue. If revenge travel is a thing, our trip was a dish best served cold in two graves. This time, we returned to some favorites, allowed ourselves time to explore, and visited some new locals covering much of Scotland.


Edinburgh

Our return visit began in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh—It’s a stunningly beautiful city, modern and convenient, but still jam-packed with history in every nook and cranny. We had visited before but felt we barely scratched the surface, so we dedicated a bit more time this go-around to seeing more of the city, choosing to walk, and allowing ourselves more time to soak up the town. Unlike home, spring had been delayed in Scotland, so while the days were warm, the flora was more in its late winter/early spring transition. By the end of the trip, that would have changed, but for much of our visit, as we moved further north we chased the tail end of winter.

With an apartment in Haymarket serving as a base, we had plenty of access to museums, gardens, parks, food, pubs, galleries, and more. Edinburgh is a modern city built on the bones of an old city, and I find the layers of elevation and the interplay of the present intermixed with antiquity inspiring. It’s a recurring theme in my work.

Bopping around Edinburgh and exploring its nooks and crannies was a relaxing way to begin a long trip, even if we walked over twenty-five miles before grabbing a rental car and heading out of the city and into Scotland’s vast reaches.


Islay

1665 Map of Islay by Joan Bleau

I am drawn to the smoke and brine. I want complexity in a dram I sip. So it makes sense that much of my interest in scotch whisky indubitably settles on the malts of Islay, with occasional forays into Island and Campbeltown whiskies. Perhaps this was where my musings on Clock Time first started to percolate. After all, whisky isn’t a process that can be rushed; it’s ready when it’s ready, and that could take decades, according to our measurements. In some ways, the more complex the dram, the more we are tasting time itself.

This wasn’t our first time here. We had been to Islay once before but left with plenty of unfinished business. On our last visit, our days were limited. So our second trip to Scotland again brought us on a return pilgrimage. This go around, we had four full days and took the opportunity to visit every one of the open distilleries on the island and sample a swath of expressions.

Our base on Islay was Port Charlotte, a lovely little seaside village with a fantastic central location allowing quick access all over the island. (And an easy 1-mile walk to Bruichladdich.) Islay is divided into two sections among the locals, the “light” northwestern side and the “dark” southeastern side—separated by the River Laggan. Depending on where you’re at and who you are talking to at the time, those nicknames can flip, but the teasing is all in good fun as the community on Islay is tight-knit and friendly.

There weren’t many places on the island we didn’t visit, but much of our time was focused on its whisky. Most of the distilleries had only just reopened to the public. So that eight-month delay in our trip erred for our benefit. We did tours. We did tastings. We explored warehouses. We sampled the weird, the rare, and the unattainable. (If you can get your hands on an Ardbeg Dark Cove, treat that beauty as a precious gem.) We made friends with the staff and got to know Islay through its chief export. After nearly a week on Islay, we came away with an ever-deepening knowledge about whisky and the island.

Of course, we expanded our collection, and this time we went big, returning with ten bottles that are difficult to find in the PNW. (We also picked up three more when we got home to round out the collection.)

  1. Glen Scotia Double Cask (Campbeltown)
  2. Glen Scotia Victoriana (Campbeltown)
  3. Springbank 10 (Campbeltown)
  4. Kilchoman 100% Islay (Islay)
  5. Bruichladdich The Biodynamic Project (Islay)
  6. Bruichladdich Octomore 11.2 (Islay)
  7. Bunnahabhain Feis Ile 2021 (Islay)
  8. Bunnahabhain 12 Year (Islay)
  9. Caol Ila Moch (Islay)
  10. Scarabus (Islay) – The distillery on this expression is kept secret, and it’s also pretty common and affordable, but we didn’t know it at the time. Ah well. Decent malt, regardless.

And the three “local” additions:

  1. Springbank 15 (Campbeltown) – Funny enough, we couldn’t get this at the distillery, so imagine my delight in finding a bottle available in Seattle.
  2. Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Heavily Peated 10 (Islay)
  3. Ardbeg Uigeadail (Islay) – My favorite scotch.

Orkney

History is everywhere in Scotland. Ruins four or five hundred years old are common. You find them on farmland, in the middle of a city, or next to the village pub. They constantly serve as a fixed reminder of impermanence. But on the Orkney Islands, there is a shift. Ruins there extend far deeper into human history. In the presence of deep time, something as pedantic as modern Clock Time appears trite, maybe even a little gratuitous. Perhaps that’s why there’s such a relaxed approach to schedules and the clock as one moves away from population centers.

Sites representing thousands of years of history are scattered among the sheep pastures, cattle farms, and rolling hills of King Lot’s old stomping ground. Ruins like the village of Skara Brae (older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids) sit only a few miles from the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and several chambered cairns. One can start five thousand years in the past and move slowly through eras visiting sites from the Stone Age, the Picts, the Vikings, the Renaissance, and eventually into our present day. And it was moving among sites and seeing the remnants of the ancient past that roused my reflection on our harried modern life and worshipful adherence to the clock. Perhaps this confrontation with deep time constantly returned my focus on how we spend our moments, what we let bother us, and how much time we give to unimportant things.


Hills Between

In college, road trips were grueling marathons, with drives between fourteen to seventeen hours a day. For some reason, I did this for fun and was even proud of it. I’m older now, and I refuse to do that anymore. It’s not how I want to spend my life. So, between our major destination stops (Edinburgh, Islay, and the Orkneys), we gave ourselves loads of time to explore Scotland, stopping whenever we were inspired and seeing what was to see—and there is a lot to see.

As you would expect, much of that was history, and much of that history was ruins, but there were also moments of intense natural beauty. Scotland is an ancient and rugged landscape, and it’s impossible to ignore. Coming around a corner or emerging from a forest can introduce vistas that will take your breath away, and often some of the most stunning pieces of natural beauty are tucked away in hidden corners. Like any country, you’ll often find the more fulfilling places off the beaten path. The reality is, I have never regretted stopping and exploring vs. spending more time on the road, and that goes doubly in Scotland.


Advice and Tips

  • If you’re going to be in Scotland for some time and, like us, you’re into castles, gardens, and ruins, I recommend getting a National Trust membership. None of the sights are expensive, but they add up, and going this route will save you some bucks.
  • Deep-fried pizza is terrible. While it might sound intriguing, it’s not. It’s a grody soggy mess. Skip it. Now haggis, on the other hand…
  • Since COVID, most distilleries are moving to reservation systems, so be sure to book early if you want special tastings or tours.

Clock Time might have been a British invention, but American capitalism distilled it and turned it into a rigid hustle-culture grind that seems to haunt our society. While there are obvious benefits, it took me stepping away from US soil and facing the presence of deep time that tuned me into our strict adherence to clocks and schedules. I’m sure the reflection on time also came from this trip being a celebration of a milestone birthday. It’s easy to reflect on our past and our future in moments like this, and I clearly welcomed it as we journeyed around Scotland. It’s part of what makes travel appealing to me. Lessons like these, even ones without actionable takeaways, excite me for travel. After several years of the pandemic, travel is what helped me reexamine the portions of my life that leaned too far into Clock Time and look for places for improvement.

It took me longer than I expected to assemble this Trip Report. Life has been chaotic in both good ways and bad, and sometimes that can step in the way of our own goals. But, after being back for a few months, I am starting to feel like I’m re-establishing myself into a routine.

I didn’t write as much as I hoped on my trip, but I thought about it and worked through some complex knots that I hadn’t known existed. As with all travel, I came back feeling both refreshed and inspired in ways I hadn’t expected, and that’s enough for me to call this trip an astounding success. Couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate turning 40. Thank you, Kari-Lise.


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An Overdue Hiatus

It’s a little odd to post something like this during a lull in my blogging, but I like to keep my readers informed when I will be away from the internet for a bit (as much as you can realistically be “away” these days.) Anyway, this post is to announce that this blog will be dormant—I mean even more dormant—for the next month or so. Why? Well…

Kari-Lise and I are taking our second trip to Scotland! (Our first visit was in 2017. You can read about our experience here.) This trip is long overdue. It was supposed to be for my 40th birthday, but COVID did its thing, and everything was delayed and then delayed some more. But no more. It’s happening. Finally. We’re planning to visit some favorite places (Edinburgh and Islay) and hit up some new spots (Orkney) and generally get lost in the solitude of the open country. We’re really looking forward to it and it should be a good time.

We will be gone most of April, so my current plan is to resume blogging in May. I expect to be writing quite a bit while in Scotland, so I hope to have lots to share upon our return. While away, I’ll almost certainly post to Instagram, so I recommend following me if you’re interested in my travels. And as always, expect a trip report upon my return.


If you’re looking for something to read or explore in the interim, here are a few suggestions:

For more travel-related photos, previous trips, and trip reports check out:


Mar sin leat, and see y’all when we return!


Want to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information. Sign Up Today →

Trip Report – Santa Fe

The decision was made immediately after Kari-Lise and I got our first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine back in May. TRAVEL. Travel was calling. Call it a spontaneous trip or revenge travel, we were hungry for the world. Like everyone else, we’d spent last year social distancing and sticking close to home, doing our part to stop the spread. Now, on our way to being fully inoculated and assured we wouldn’t unknowingly spread the virus to others, we craved a change of scenery—something opposite from the verdant mountains of Western Washington. We plotted our vaccine schedule, figured out the timeline, and booked a trip.

It’s been a decade since we visited Santa Fe, and it’s no surprise the city called to us once again. It’s an easy trip in non-pandemic times and was a place we both wanted to revisit. In May we weren’t sure how everything would play out, but we decided to roll the dice and plan for a trip of a few days exploring the town and the surrounding landscape. It was well worth it. Like any instance of travel, I came away feeling invigorated and creatively inspired. After a year at home, it was good to get away, breathe the thin desert air, and visit a place so unlike my daily experience. As the pandemic recedes in here America, everyone is still feeling out public behavior. But even with the mild awkwardness, the results were a trip comprised of fantastic food, incredible art, and surprising exploration.


The Food

It’s not going to be possible to share this trip without hitting on the copious amounts of delicious food we devoured. New Mexico is the land of the chile, and red and green varieties show up in every menu across the state, no matter what cuisine. When ordering, one is often asked if you want red or green chile—you can also opt for both by ordering your meal “Christmas.” (Yeah, it sounded corny the first time I said it as well. But the place is called Santa Fe. *rimshot*) Neither are particularly spicy despite the many warnings for tourists, but both are complex and flavorful. Trying different combos is worth the effort there’s no wrong choice here. Choose what works for you and enjoy.

Standout meals include the tacos from El Chile Toreado (arguably some of the best tacos I’ve ever had). The Short Rib Birria from Paloma, probably the fanciest dining we experienced on the trip. Solid enchiladas from The Shed (a return visit). And a strange little chile dog from the Taos Ale House; a mess to eat but incredibly delicious.


The Art

The third-largest art market in the United States is an artery running through the heart of Santa Fe along a street known as Canyon Road. (At this point it has spread well beyond Canyon Road, but posterity likes a metaphor.) The narrow lane is lined with over a hundred art galleries and studio spaces full of a variety of art. Everything from contemporary to traditional art, sculpture to jewelry, couture clothing to leather goods is offered somewhere along the route, and it’s easy to lose yourself for half a day or more.


These wind sculptures were quite relaxing.

Much had changed in the decade since our last visit, as one would suspect. Couple that with a receding pandemic and Canyon Road felt like a place awakening from a long slumber. In some spots, masks were optional for the fully vaccinated. Others were still being cautious and requiring masks and social distancing for all guests. We were happy to oblige and spent many hours wandering through the galleries discussing art and finding new favorites.

The standout for me was discovering the work of Grant Hayunga at his own recently opened gallery. His work varies but what stood out were his mixed media pieces that sat somewhere between paintings and relief sculpture. Made of various materials, calcium carbonate, crushed marble, beeswax, Hayunga creates fascinating pieces that explore humanity and our relationship with nature. My favorite from this series is fur trapper a recent piece from this year. He also creates these stunning neo-traditional landscapes, one of which—2016’s Asleep—enthralled both Kari-Lise and me. It’s all beautiful work, easily my favorite of the whole Canyon Road experience. You all need to buy more books from me so I can get one of his pieces.

“fur trapper” 2021, hanging in the Grant Hayunga Gallery

Meow Wolf

Canyon Road wasn’t the only artistic experience of the trip. When we last visited Santa Fe, the art collective known as Meow Wolf was still in its infancy. In the decade since our visit, they have experienced significant growth. Their permanent home in Santa Fe is a former-bowling alley funded by some local guy named George R. R. Martin. It sits near the southwestern edge of the city as is home to their first large-scale interactive art experience House of Eternal Return. It’s amazing. The whole thing plays out like an interactive X-Files episode.

I can write a thousand words on what is inside, but it’ll never do it justice. Even photos don’t really capture the magic. You begin outside a modest home oddly enclosed in a warehouse (the reason why is eventually explained). After you pass through the front door (it’s open), you’ll soon discover a rich story told through journals, newspaper articles, videos, and photo albums, pictures on the wall, toys in the bedroom, and much much more. It all ties the family that resided there and their experiences to the surreal worlds you’ll interact with as you move beyond the House itself. I don’t want to go into too much detail on the experience since the House gives back what you bring, and spoilers remove that sense of wonder. (I even consider not sharing pics.)

I came away feeling inspired by the whole thing and thought it’d be great to someday recreate a corner of Lovat for readers to explore in person. Will it ever happen? I don’t know. My “Old Haunts” project is a small attempt at capturing some of that, and while I love them, being able to do it in person would be so rich and satisfying. Imagine standing outside Russel & Sons with rain dropping down around you, muffled jazz blaring from somewhere above, and the smell of spicy noodles cooking from a push cart down the street. Rad idea, right?

House of Eternal Return isn’t Meow Wolf’s only project. They have another installation that went live this year, and more experiences are planned for the future (Denver and eventually Washington D.C.). We’re already looking at a trip to Las Vegas for one reason: visit Omega Mart. Think cosmic horror as a grocery store chain, and you’d be on track. (Check out some of their ads.) It all sounds as creepy and weird and wonderful as I’d hope. I am excited to explore its aisles in the future.


New Mexico Highlands

On a whim, we decided to leave Santa Fe behind and head out into the country. We did this a decade ago, heading northwest toward Abiquiú and the Ghost Ranch. This time we headed northeast toward Taos. Early-summer storms were sweeping across the land, and you could watch enormous dark clouds trailing tails of rain and shadow for miles. For some reason, I expected more of the high desert environment like what I saw ten years previous. But the land toward the northeast was very different to that of the west, it rose suddenly. As we left the desert behind, we found ourselves in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Southern Rocky Mountains. I’ve grown up among the Rocky’s most of my life. But driving north along highway 68 and looking across the vast Taos plateau and seeing the gorge carved by the Rio Grande was utterly breathtaking. I’ve seen deep valleys before, but never one carved in such flat and open land and from such a height. I still find myself reflecting on that view. Seeing the ground opened up that way was like staring into the vastness of time.

The Río Grande Gorge from the Taos Overlook, off State Road 68 near the “horseshoe.” Photo from the Taos News.

Instead of continuing East across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, we decided to loop up into the mountains. We found ourselves in Carson National Forest, taking the High Road to Taos scenic byway back to Santa Fe. This is proper mountain country, think tall trees, deep valleys, tiny communities tucked away into hollows, and vast untouched stretches of forest for miles and miles. It all felt closer to home. Beautiful, but not at all what I anticipated.

So Much More

Santa Fe and the surrounding land can be a bit surreal at times. Modern art and interactive art experiences exist alongside deep history. The Palace of the Governors, erected in 1610, is the oldest public building in continuous use in America. Just down the street is the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the United States. Outside of Taos is the Taos Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States, originating sometime between 1000–1450 A.D. and not discovered by Europeans until the sixteenth century. And that only scratches the surface of what you can find in this small section of the state. This doesn’t even begin to cover other places in New Mexico we were unable to visit, locations like White Sands, Roswell, Carlsbad Caverns, Shiprock, Trinity, the burning of Zozobra, Los Alamos, and so much more. There is a density of wonder here and New Mexico doesn’t hold back and is very much worth your attention.


Advice & Tips

  • You’re going to want to rent a car, this is big country. That said when in town, be willing to walk. There’s so much to see in Santa Fe, and unexpected places are often found on foot.
  • Eat everything. Try new dishes. Explore New Mexican cuisine. Fear no chile. Don’t be put off by location. Sometimes the smallest trucks tucked into the quietest corners can have the best tacos.
  • Scenic byways are your friend in Western States and New Mexico is full of them (High Road to Taos, Turquoise Trail, Santa Fe Trail, among many many others). While slower than major freeways, these routes will give travelers glimpses into a New Mexico easily missed by tourists. The extra time is worth it.

This was my fourth trip into New Mexico, my second to Santa Fe, and easily my favorite of the bunch. Each time I visit, the trips get a little longer, and each time I return I wish I had stayed a few more days. The name “Land of Enchantment” is a fitting one. The terrain there is haunting, rich in history and legend, and it calls to the traveler to take time and explore its wonders.

I’m not going to lie, it’s weird to travel right now, even fully vaccinated. People are rightly nervous, business hours are funky, and what we thought of as “normal” has changed significantly. Traveling at the end of a pandemic requires a lot of patience and copious amounts of kindness and empathy. We’re in a transitional period, and those can be both interesting and weird to navigate. However, it’s still worth it to get away for a time, and allow oneself to experience the world again. It was good to return to New Mexico, and a shame to have waited so long to return. Here’s hoping our next visit comes sooner rather than later.

Trip Report – Hawaii

Hawaii has never called to me. Most of my impressions of America’s 50th state formed in the crucible of late ‘80s television shows, movies, and the representations therein. Those didn’t spark any interest for me as I got older and began to travel more often. It took a family holiday to draw me to the archipelago, and while I enjoyed my short time on the islands—I feel like I left Hawaii with unfinished business.

For Thanksgiving, we joined my in-laws in visiting my brother-in-law and his wife at their home on O’ahu. He serves in the U.S. Coast Guard and is stationed in Honolulu, living just off Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. We didn’t have much time on O’ahu, and the holiday kept us busy. So I don’t have a lot to say about the most populated island in the chain—we didn’t make it up to the North Shore, only saw a bit of the stunning East Shore, and we didn’t spend enough time in Honolulu for me to understand it as a city. It was the ghost on the horizon. Its grid remaining unexplored.

After the holiday, Kari-Lise and I took the short 25-minute plane ride from Honolulu to Maui, where we spent the remaining five days of our vacation. Some with family and some off on our own. It was a packed five days, and we saw the bulk of the island. As a result, my feelings for Maui are mixed. I’ve never been much of a resort-person, and a large portion of the beaches are dominated by hotel towers and mediocre restaurants, all featuring the strangely typical menus. I don’t care about outdoor malls, I have little attraction to group excursions, and you can only eat so much overcooked macadamia-crusted seafood. So there’s a lot of Maui that wasn’t for me.

But there is a wildness there if you’re willing to put in the effort. The shallows all around the island teem with life, and there’s a lot of snorkeling and diving with plenty to see. But, as a guy who has relatively serious vision-issues (legally blind without my glasses), snorkeling isn’t high on my priority list. So, if you’re like me and crave a bit more adventure away from the capitalist extravaganza of the resorts, I have a few suggestions.


Iao Valley State Park

We tackled this on our first full day on Maui. A short (and beautiful) drive away from the Kahului and the dry desert-like basin of central Maui, up into a lush and narrow valley. Here, you’ll find a tiny state park (I believe the whole thing is just over 6 acres) and some easy hiking trails (so easy I’m wary of even calling them trails) with some substantial views of a few incredible landforms. It’s not a large park, but it’s memorable, and in being tucked away, it’s not as congested as other parts of the island.


Haleakalā

The Haleakalā National Park and its volcanic namesake dominate the western side of Maui. After a long and winding drive up the side of the dormant shield volcano, you’re greeted by a stunning view of Maui and the surrounding islands as well as a view into the alienesque vista of the crater. At ten-thousand feet, I found myself fighting against altitude sickness. That’s not something I’ve encountered before, and I’m a fairly experienced hiker—so while I’d have loved to hike some of the trails, we decided to forgo the more extensive hikes and stick close to the roads. Kari-Lise and I are a big fan of our National Parks, and I’d love to return to Haleakalā and take a crack at the paths atop its crown.


The Hana Highway – The Whole Thing

You’ll hear about the Hana Highway before you ever go—it’s a dominant draw, and after a few turns along its windy rainforested course, you’ll understand why. It’s a remarkable experience. Weaving its way through the coastline of Western Maui, the Highway cuts past stunning views, beautiful waterfalls, narrow bridges, and is dotted along the way with local fruit stands. We even managed to make a side trip down an old dirt road to see the Pi’ilanihale Heiau—it’s the largest single heiau in all of Polynesia. I’ve never been to an archeological site like that before, and it was well worth the short jaunt.

The passage “ends” at Hana for most—but we’ve never been satisfied with the status quo. We continued on, and after an incredible meal at a roadside Huli Huli stand (the best meal of the trip), the Highway really became something special. Narrow roads take you into places many tourists avoid; the landscape is raw, wild, and remote. The asphalt gives way to a pot-holed country lane that bends and weaves through jungles, gulches, and cliffs before emerging into the rolling hills of Maui’s stunning Upcountry. The route past Hana, toward Ulupalakua, was easily my favorite experience on the island.


The Honoapiilani & Kahekili Highway

On the north side of the island lies a small highway that doesn’t have the draw of Hana, but is nearly equal in beauty. We chose it on a whim toward the end of our visit, allowing us to complete our Maui experiences and getting away from the tourist traps and stuffy resorts of the west coast. The road here is narrow, and with fewer turnouts and long stretches of single-lane roads, it’s not as traffic-friendly as the Hana Highway. That said, the views of the ocean and the tumultuous surf along the north shore are stunning, and the crowds along the coast were lighter. We stopped and got some banana bread, watched a man feed the mongooses, checked out a natural blowhole, and generally enjoyed our day. It was a pleasant way to cap our experience on the island and left us feeling like we had absorbed much of what Maui had to offer.


Advice & Tips

  • Skip the restaurants along the beach and focus on the Huli Huli stands or the holes-in-the-wall away from hotels and condos. The food there is better and cheaper.
  • Buy fruit from the fruit stands. Seriously. This is how they’re meant to taste.
  • Rent small if you can—while all of the roads I mentioned would handle a vehicle of any size; a smaller vehicle will make navigating the narrow roads much easier, especially for nervous drivers.

I began this report talking about unfinished business. Maui was pleasant, but I felt no sirens call. It didn’t captivate me the way I had hoped. While moments along the way will resonate with me, I don’t think the island itself was for me.

It has been said that there’s a Hawaiian island for everyone, and I’m still willing to give that aphorism a chance. The Big Island temps me, Kaui looks as if it could be a near-perfect fit, and I am eager to give O’ahu more time. (It’s probably no secret for those who read my work that cities fascinate me and Honolulu is the remotest city of its size in the world. So, yeah, I want to spend more time there.)

I’m certain there will be other Hawaiian visits in my future, and I look forward to them. Not every trip has to strike the right chords. Not every journey will become the magical experience we dream of—and that’s fine. It’s a part of travel, and understanding that is key to experiencing this wondrous world. But for now, I’m still looking for my island.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Trip Report: Amsterdam

Trip Report – Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a great many things. It is a city with vice, but it is not a city of vice. There’s a difference there. Cities of vice like to plaster their wares everywhere. They write it in neon on the skyline, they shout it from the street corners. Amsterdam, in its old European way, is a bit more subdued about it. But that doesn’t stop people from talking.


“When you mention you’ll be making a stopover in Amsterdam, you get a reaction I can only describe as semi-collegiate. A knowing look… as if there can really only be two reasons you’d go to this lovely little city of canals.”

Anthony Bourdain


I feel like I need to get this out of the way immediately. Bourdain was right, mentioning Amsterdam draws all manner of looks and questions. That means diving into Kari-Lise and my trip without discussing Amsterdam’s reputation is difficult. The most significant difference between the Dutch capital and your hometown, is the Dutch are pure capitalists. They organize their vice neatly so it can be taxed and generate money for the state. That’s preferable to the American practice of outlawing it, sweeping it under the rug, and pretending it doesn’t exist until it becomes a problem. The truth is that Amsterdam, for all the illicit happenings, happens to be a diverse, lively, and beautiful little city with a fantastic food scene, tons of culture, and incredible architecture.

On this trip, we were once again joined by our expat compatriots Kelcey Rushing and Jim Rushing. It was Kari-Lise and Kelcey’s birthdays, so we were able to celebrate as we went on a whirlwind exploration of the city. Since this vacation was very city-focused, I’ll share some of the more memorable experiences and hit on the different places we visited throughout our eight-day trip.


Amsterdam

Our canal-side apartment was in Jordaan on the northwest side of the city. It was a twenty-minute walk from nearly everything, and we discovered that it was easy to put six or seven miles behind us throughout the day. Amsterdam—to put it mildly—is beautiful, even in winter. Canals are everywhere. They crisscross the city, cutting beneath roads and emerging between buildings. Amsterdam is extremely walkable, but if you want to get out of the rain, you’ll usually find a tram that passes by your destination. I could spend days walking in the city — each corner offers a new vista, and discovering the nooks and crannies was enticing.

One of the nearby canals in Jordaan.
One of the nearby canals in Jordaan.

Amsterdamers are diverse, friendly, and welcoming. The food culture is fantastic, with a ton of street food, from the traditional cone-of-frites with hefty helpings of mayonnaise to automats tucked away on the street level of four-hundred-year-old buildings. If you want something fancier, you can find plenty of that as well: I’d recommend checking out Lion Noir on the south side of the canal belt or Springaren toward the north.

Make sure you swing through an Indonesian restaurant or two — due to the Dutch East India Company’s colonization in the 1800s, there’s a significant presence of Indonesian and Surinamese people within the city. This influx brought Southeast Asian cuisine to the Dutch, which led to the creation of Rijsttafel—a large family-style meal consisting of small spicy dishes served with rice. It’s a delicious experience and well worth trying.

Our adorable apartment in Jordaan

Over the next several days, we hit up a few of the more traditional museums to fill our quota of Dutch art. (Those Rembrandts aren’t going to view themselves!) But, since we’re Atlas Obscura disciples, we also tend to seek out the strange. Before our trip, I quickly assessed the weirder side of Amsterdam. You tend to find a lot of odd little bits in a city this old, and Amsterdam is packed full of curiosities. We explored a museum of cat art, had high tea in the smallest house in Amsterdam, visited a collection of odd and esoteric books, found a Catholic “house church” hiding in the upper levels of a 17th century canal home, and we took a morning to spend some time looking through a collection of anatomical anatomy and congenital defects on the outskirts of the city. Even with all of that, I felt like we had only scratched the surface.

It’s easy to see how there are whole swaths of the city we missed. Which means there are so many more places to explore. Amsterdam will be a perfect pit stop for a few days whenever we return to the Continent.


Bruges & Haarlem

The last three days of our trip was spent outside of Amsterdam. On the Rushing’s suggestion, we rented a car and made the two-and-a-half-hour drive down to Belgium, with Bruges as our destination. The Netherland and Belgian landscapes are vast and flat; huge windmills turn in the distance and hydroponic farms line the ancient canals, open fields, and miles upon miles of greenhouses. The Netherlands have become agricultural giants, and you can see it in the countryside.

Kari-Lise, myself, and Jim walking down a quiet street in Bruges - Photo by Kelcey Rushing
Kari-Lise, myself, and Jim walking down a quiet street in Bruges – Photo by Kelcey Rushing

We arrived in Bruges by mid-afternoon. The city, with its narrow streets and canals, is an Amsterdam in miniature. But where Amsterdam didn’t see life until the 13th Century, Bruges has been settled since the 9th Century. So its buildings tend to be older than those you’d find in Amsterdam, with a few dating from medieval periods.

Being a Belgian town, chocolates glisten from shop windows, waffles are available on street corners, and pommes frites served in paper cones are as ordinary here as they are in the Netherlands. Also with it being Belgian, it’s no surprise that Bruges has a great beer scene! Many beer cellars peddle Belgian ales beneath the ancient buildings. Kelcey and Jim had a few picks from their previous visits. My favorite was ‘t Poatersgat (The Monk’s Hole) who specialized in only independent Belgian brews—with a focus on Trappist beers—many of which are unavailable outside of the country. It’s located in the vast cellar of an old building and accessible by a tiny door that leads down into the hall. The place has a feeling of a cistern or catacomb. A great vibe with reasonable prices, and a friendly and helpful staff.

Bruges canals
Kari-Lise and the canals of Bruges

Sadly, we didn’t get to spend much time in Bruges. But I was glad I went: I could see the appeal, and I’d certainly make a return visit. We drove north to Haarlem on the final full day of our trip skirting the coast and seeing the vast Oosterscheldekering waterworks. It’s an impressive feat of engineering.

Haarlem is a small city to the northwest of Amsterdam, with a relaxed vibe. It’s a bit slower paced than the frenetic energy of the capital and quieter than the destination town of Bruges. It was a relaxing way to end a fast-paced trip such as this; and with easy access to Amsterdam, it’s not a bad place to stay if you want quiet nights away from the hustle and bustle. The following morning, after breakfast and a wander through a farmer’s market, we headed to Schipol and then made our way home.


Advice & Tips

If Amsterdam sounds like your sort of place, I do have a few bits of advice:

  • Scope out the weirdness on Atlas Obscura. (Heck, do this for every trip you take.) It’s a great resource and is usually full of non-touristy stuff that is worth checking out.
  • Get thyself an Amsterdam City Card. We didn’t do this, and it would have saved us some money on trams and museums. It also makes it even easier to get around.
  • Hit up Eater’s recommendations for Amsterdam food. We found a lot of great restaurants this way, and mapped them out ahead of time. This made it simple to pull up ideas when we needed them.
  • If you’re a hearty traveler who doesn’t mind chilly weather, you can score super cheap tickets to Europe in the offseason. It’s worth exploring prices in October/November to see what you can find in January/February. By all accounts, summer in Amsterdam is quite crowded. Our off-season travel meant finding tables and seats were easy. Something to consider.

Amsterdam was a wonderful experience, and I will certainly be going back. It should be a destination city for everyone. There is a massive amount of things to do, see, and eat. We could have easily spent another week among the canals and even with extra time, I doubt we’d have exhausted the city.

Thanks again to Kelcey and Jim for joining us on the trip, and being willing to bum around the town. Amsterdam is one of their favorites — they had been many times before, and are gracious enough to indulge our bright-eyed wonder. It was a lot of fun. (I told you after Scotland they’d show up on future trips!)


“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”

— G. K. Chesterton


Travel is important. It’s important for understanding other cultures. It’s important for fully grasping the weight of history. It’s important for understanding others. We’re lucky to live in an era when traveling around the world is easy and reasonably accessible. It lets us experience how others live in a physical way. Losing oneself within another culture helps build empathy and open up new perspectives extending beyond our own narrow silos.

As a writer, it’s important to acknowledge that we live in a world of stories. Exploring the narrow alleyways or deep canals of a city can reveal ideas. We can find new characters lingering beneath street lamps on remote corners and hiding in doorways down tight alleys. It’s common to stumble across plots etched in architecture, history, or the twisting street plans of an ancient city. Ideas, concepts, and characters we might not have discovered sitting at home. So, get out there. Travel. Meet people. Listen to them. Be humble and get uncomfortable.

As I write this, it’s been over a week since our trip, and we’re getting back into our routine. I’ve settled back into work, and I’ve dived back into writing. The pages of Gleam Upon the Waves won’t write themselves, and there’s a specific caravan master who’s in a bit of a jam. Time to travel back to the Territories and see where his story leads.


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A Brief Hiatus

A Brief Hiatus

For the next week or so, things around here will slow down a bit as I intentionally go internet-silent. Responses to emails and comments will be delayed during that time. Kari-Lise and I are traveling to Amsterdam and Belgium for her birthday and meeting up with our travel pals, Kelcey and Jim. (The same fine folks who joined us in Scotland.) I might occasionally post to Instagram, so I do recommend following me if you’re interested in my travels. I’ll assemble a trip report upon my return!

My current plan is to resume normal blog activities around late-January. But, if you’re looking for something to read in the interim, here are a few of my more popular posts:

See y’all in a week or so!